Greg Fergus, like every Speaker before him, has his work cut out
Before they came right out and declared that Anthony Rota was no longer fit to serve as Speaker of the House of Commons, Rota's fellow Liberals publicly encouraged him to "reflect." That reflection eventually led him to the inevitable conclusion that he had to step aside — and to a foundational reason for doing so.
"The work of the House is above any of us," Rota said.
If nothing else, Rota at least left Parliament with that principle to consider. It's only unfortunate that an international embarrassment was his reason for mentioning it.
But when MPs convened on Tuesday morning to elect a new Speaker — probably the most closely watched election of a Speaker since the first one in 1986 — there was general agreement that the moment was a delicate one.
"Canadians are currently going through a lot and looking for stability and strong leadership at the core of our country's democracy," Conservative MP Chris D'Entremont said.
Green Party Co-leader Elizabeth May spoke of "the tragedy that unfolded in this place" a week and a half ago. NDP MP Carol Hughes told her fellow members that they found themselves "at a unique moment in the history of this House." Liberal MP Greg Fergus, who would soon become the 38th Speaker, told MPs that "what brought us here today requires a response."
"Words matter. Symbols matter. This, I know," he said. "As your Speaker, I will restore, and quickly bring back, the honour to this chamber."
But the memory of Rota's final hours in the chair wasn't the only thing hanging over Tuesday's proceedings.
Parliament's challenges don't end with Rota's resignation
Rota's resignation appears to have been almost unique in one aspect — it was the first time since 1878 that a Speaker had felt compelled to step aside because of a personal controversy. But Tuesday's election of a new Speaker was only the latest occasion for MPs to interrogate the way they speak and behave on the floor of the House of Commons.
"The level of respect for Parliament and the office of the Speaker has taken an incredible beating in this session of Parliament," Liberal MP Sean Casey said. "Especially in question period, and it does not need to."
Casey, who competed for the position of Speaker against Fergus, does not seem inclined toward niceties and he was straightforward in his account of question period and in his offer to MPs.
"A vigorous and relentless prosecution of an issue is not made stronger by the repeated flouting of the rules of this place or by defying the Speaker. It denigrates this institution and all of us, its temporary occupants. I believe it is time for a reset," he said.
If MPs were willing to be part of a "collective effort to restore public confidence in the way we treat each other and the rules of Parliament," Casey said, then he would be "honoured to lead that cause." But if members were "comfortable with the current state of decorum and level of respect for the office of the Speaker," he said, he did not want their vote.
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This sort of blunt talk probably didn't help Casey's chances of actually being elected Speaker. While the British House of Commons is comfortable with shouty headmasters, the Canadian House tends to prefer Speakers who seem reluctant, maybe even embarrassed, to raise their voices.
But even the relatively genteel Fergus acknowledged that the task before the House was not simply to pick a Speaker who would do a better job of vetting visitors.
"What motivates me, and what I vow to work night and day to promote and advance, can be summed up in one word — respect," he said. "Respect for each other, the way we treat each other and the way we talk to Canadians. In other words, this is all about decorum."
Decorum is the eternal concern.
But even if the lament is longstanding, it would still be a mistake to downplay the tone of this Parliament. "Rude, disrespectful and unruly" was how the Toronto Star described it this weekend. And the latest concerns about the tone of debate — and what Canadians see when they bother to tune in — must be set against the backdrop of great and global concerns about the ability of democratic institutions to withstand populist attacks.
If MPs have been particularly willing to push the limits of late — if the House often seems now to be treated like little more than a fancy stage for filming partisan rants meant to generate likes and retweets — that cannot be easily dismissed as simply the same old thing.
Fergus can fix some things — not everything
But there are at least two forces that will always push back against any Speaker's hopes of keeping the volume to a respectful roar.
The first is the fact that parliamentary democracy is premised on a certain amount of conflict between opposition and government — and some MPs take great inspiration from that fact. The second is the reality that partisans can justify saying and doing a lot of things when it is in their partisan interests to do so.
Expressed concerns about decorum and civility often have a noticeable impact on the volume of question period. At least for a few days. And then the dull roar returns.
A firm and creative Speaker can make a small difference. Rota's resignation and Tuesday's election have, for instance, revived talk among MPs of abolishing the lists that allow party whips to determine who gets to ask questions during question period (Liberals actually committed to implementing that reform in their party's 2019 platform).
But as Fergus himself said, he cannot restore "respect" to Parliament on his own.
"The Speaker, to use the old hockey analogy, is nothing more than a referee," the new Speaker said after he had taken the chair. "If there is one thing I know, it is that nobody pays good money to go see the referee. They go to see the stars."
So Rota was right — the work of the House is bigger than any one individual. But if there is reason to worry about Parliament's public standing right now, it is not just Rota who needs to reflect.
Credit belongs to : www.cbc.ca